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Comics reinvented themselves in 2020 in order to survive

What a pandemic year meant for American comics

Comic shops struggling. Creators out of work. The industry on hold. If you asked 100 people for their take on what 2020 meant for comics, you’d likely get 100 different answers, but most would center on these and similar problems.

After all, the American comics industry had its own unusual wrinkles beyond the typical challenges of the year, most notably a two-month stretch where the direct market’s then-only distributor – Diamond Comic Distributors – stopped shipping new single-issue comics to stores. This upended a huge portion of the industry, leading to publishers without retailers to sell their comics, creators with disappearing prospects, and comic shops with little new product to sell — if they were even open due to shelter-in-place orders. The Diamond Shutdown ultimately led DC Comics to effectively will two new distributors into the market, a change that created its own difficulties. It was a seismic moment in comics. It’d be understandable for any recap of the year to focus on the negative, especially considering how this industry often operates.

For the longest time, so many in certain parts of the industry have had limited views of what comics could – or should – be. “You publish in this format because that’s the way we always have, and you distribute this way for the same reason.” Comics was the ultimate “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” industry, even if the medium itself wasn’t. The problem is, in 2020, it finally broke. In a snap, everyone had to reinvent themselves, with people across comics finding themselves in new, unexpected positions by necessity.

And to their eternal credit, they made it work, turning what could have been a year of disaster into one that underlined the impressive resilience of comics — even if it required considerable effort to get there.

Mile High Comics sells its warehouse and will move over 6 million copies of comics to their second location. Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

There came a March unlike any other

Comic shops took on more jobs than ever before. In circumstances where single-issue comics weren’t coming out “until further notice” and customers might not even be allowed in stores, the business model of the Local Comic Shop was overturned instantaneously. But the shops got to work. Clerks, sales people, and owners were now whatever the job called for, whether that was mail-order mavens, personal shoppers, comics curators, delivery drivers, or even hosts for increasingly important Facebook Live sales. While this meant having to work considerably more for the same money as before, they did it because they had to.

That’s the case for the comics industry as a whole, as each role within the broader comics ecosystem had to find solutions to previously unthinkable problems. Book publishers took their tours for new releases online, as cartoonists fostered excitement for new releases by meeting bookstore customers, librarians, and even kids in virtual environments. Comic conventions did the same, as panels and Artist Alley experiences were retrofitted onto existing platforms like YouTube or Zoom or, in some instances, saw completely new, custom platforms built for the experience. Direct market publishers shifted schedules, adjusted sales strategies, and even rethought how and where they publish their works, taking their talents from the usual venues to newer options like Webtoon or ComiXology Unlimited. It wasn’t one section of comics being forced to adjust; it was everyone.

But no one had to take on more roles than the people who make the comics themselves. Diamond’s shutdown indefinitely altered the release schedules of every publisher, many of whom issued “pencils down” orders to creators. Smaller comics companies couldn’t afford to pay freelancers for work that might not hit shelves for six months. But comics creators adjusted accordingly and with stunning quickness and savvy.

They created new publishing opportunities, like James Tynion IV and Steve Foxe did with their anthology “Razorblades: The Horror Magazine,” or adopted alternative options as Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett did by taking The One You Feed to Panel Syndicate, the pay-what-you-want digital platform created by Marcos Martin and Brian K. Vaughan.

A whole host of big name creators turned to Kickstarter to connect directly with their fans and cushion publisher risks. Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, Kyle Higgins, and Elsa Charretier each smashed their goals. 2020 was Kickstarter’s biggest year yet for comic projects, bolstered by creators who were new to the platform and veteran crowd-funders alike.

Other creators diversified their portfolios by taking work with the growing number of young publishers embracing alternative models of distribution. TKO Studios, Bad Idea, and AWA Studios gave some writers and artists stability, and allowed others to discover entirely different skill sets, like when artist Liana Kangas made her co-writing debut in TKO’s Seeds of Eden.

Perhaps the most surprising role that comics creators took on this year was that of grassroots fundraisers. In maybe the most heartening comics story from 2020, creators stood in support of the comic shops that form the backbone of the direct market side of the industry as part of the #Creators4Comics campaign. People from around the field contributed everything from original art and commissions to Zoom meetups — and, on one occasion, personalized erotic fiction — for a massive, multi-day auction on Twitter.

In the rush of goodwill, creators inspired each other, pushing the limits of what was being offered higher and higher, with others from publishers and surrounding fields altogether jumping in to lend a hand or offer a rare experience for auctioning purposes. #Creators4Comics raised over $400,000 for comic shops across America in less than a week, which helped both financially and symbolically.


And it paid off

If you look at comics in 2020, you’d be surprised to find that the doom and gloom meter has managed to stay in the usual pessimistic ranges — outside of that troubling opening gambit back in April and May.

Graphic novel sales recovered well in the third quarter, gaining 42% on that problematic second quarter of interrupted distribution. Single-issue comics have done the same, with industry analyst John Jackson Miller even noting that September orders from shops were up dramatically compared to pre-pandemic numbers — despite there being considerably fewer releases. Most shops I’ve talked to have at worst weathered the storm and at best had surprisingly potent years, with some even expanding during this tough stretch.

It certainly didn’t hurt that some of the pillars of the comic world maintained their positions of strength. Dav Pilkey was still the comic equivalent of the Beatles, with Pilkey-mania selling millions more copies of Dogman and associated titles to eager kids everywhere. The all-ages audience as a whole was a monster, as stalwarts like Scholastic Graphix and First Second had big years, and Random House Graphic debuted with a dynamite lineup. Manga continued to soar, with a bevy of titles finding deep, passionate fanbases in America. Webtoon built on its powerful foundation, as the mobile comic platform’s readership still towered over its peers. Having these as constants helps, as it’s a potent base to work off of.

It was still a difficult year, of course. Multiple publishers faced layoffs, none more significantly than DC Comics, which saw a drastic reduction of staff as part of larger changes at Warner Bros. The lack of in-person comic conventions was devastating to artists who relied on those for income. As opportunities dried up, some creators went from a full slate to nothing overnight. The new sales tactics at comic shops required more effort than ever at a time staff had to be minimized. These moves were costly, both from a financial and mental health standpoint.

But that’s exactly why the story of comics in 2020 isn’t one of disaster. It was one of resilience, of perseverance, and, most of all, of reinvention. Faced with a situation where the way things were just wasn’t there anymore, the many people who comprise the broader comics industry adjusted on the fly and were rewarded for their adaptability.

What comes next for comics might be even more exciting. 2020 was a year no one would ever want to repeat, but it may also have been a step in the right direction. From all this turmoil, we may have gotten better business practices by publishers, more flexibility and ingenuity by creators, and exciting new approaches from comic shops. Instead of killing comics, 2020 revealed new ways for comics to live. What comes next is up to the people who comprise this long-running industry.

The good news is, if there’s one thing comics is good at, it’s “to be continued.”

David Harper is a writer and podcaster based out of Anchorage, Alaska. You can find his work on his subscription comic site SKTCHD and in his weekly comics interview podcast Off Panel.